Thursday, December 13, 2018

Meet the journalists trying to give Yemenis the 'full picture'

Manal Qaed, a Yemeni journalist from the port city of Hodeidah, is one of several women
who are part of the initiative [Faisal Edroos/Al Jazeera]

The Yemen Peace Newsroom aims to offer objective reporting from talks in Sweden against a backdrop of partisan coverage.

Rimbo, Sweden - It was -3 degrees Celsius, snow was beginning to fall, and there was a strong wind battering those waiting in the freezing cold.

A representative from the Yemeni government had just left the latest round of closed-door discussions involving the United Nations and insisted on holding his press briefing outside.

As the 'big three' - the Associated Press, the AFP and Reuters - began jostling for position in the damp and slippery grass, up strolled Ahmed Baider, a burly Yemeni journalist from the war-ravaged country's capital, Sanaa, eager to grab an exclusive line from what he thought was the biggest story of the day.

Carrying just his camera and mobile phone, he managed to weave his way through the media melee to within inches from where the official was standing.

After 20-odd-minutes of questions and answers, he raced past into a neighbouring press room where 11 of his colleagues, the biggest media team on location, were preparing to file the story.

"We want to be in the middle, we want to produce news as we see it with our eyes," he told Al Jazeera, peppering every sentence with the colloquial English slang word, 'mate'.

"If we do lives [live interviews] with the Houthis, then we'll do lives with the Yemeni government.

"If we do an interview with this person, we'll do an interview with that person. We give both sides an opportunity to speak. We're balanced."

Ahmed Baider takes part in an interview with a Yemeni official at the Yemen Peace Newsroom's
temporary office [Faisal Edroos/Al Jazeera]

'Giving Yemenis the full picture'

Officials from the Yemeni government and Houthi rebels have been meeting in the Swedish town of Rimbo, around 60km north of the capital, Stockholm, since Thursday for talks discussing ways to end fighting that has killed more than 60,000 people.

After seven days of discussions, the two sides have made significant breakthroughs, including an agreement to swap a total of 16,000 prisoners within the next 30 days.

Despite this, they appear to be at a major loggerhead over Sanaa airport and Hodeidah port; the latter a major humanitarian lifeline for the country's 28 million hungry and dispirited population.

Since the talks started on December 4, 12 Yemeni journalists from across the country, including Baider, have been regularly filing stories for the 'Yemen Peace Newsroom', a new initiative that aims to give Yemenis a full and objective picture of the meetings.

Supported by the French media development agency (CFI) and the UN body UNESCO, they relay developments directly from the talks to potentially millions of Yemenis via Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube.

In the past few days, some of their content has gone viral, having been picked up by both local and international media.

"We send content to a long list of local news websites and I sense that we are the top source of information for dozens of media outlets," said Aseel Sariyah, an award-winning Yemeni journalist.

"The sponsors, [CFI and the UNESCO] understand that local [Yemeni] journalists are the best type of journalists to cover such an event.

"That's why they sponsored this initiative."

The Yemen Peace Newsroom is made up of 12 journalists from various backgrounds [Faisal Edroos/Al Jazeera]

World's fifth highest number of jailed journalists

While the war in Yemen has been raging for more than three years, the conflict has only begun to receive significant media attention since the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, a Washington Post columnist and critic of Saudi Arabia's foreign policy.

Western powers have expressed their outrage over the killing, with senators in the United States questioning Washington's strategic partnership with Riyadh.

Under the leadership of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the de-facto ruler of the kingdom and alleged architect of the war, the Saudi-led coalition has carried out more than 18,000 air raids with weddings, funerals, schools, and hospitals not spared from the bombardment.

Saudi Arabia intervened in the war after the Houthis overthrew President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi and were about to seize the last remaining government bastion of Aden.

Within a matter of weeks, the media became a major battleground between the opposing sides with the Houthis launching a crackdown on dissent, ransacking the offices of several TV channels, including Suhail TV, Yemen Shebab TV, and the offices of Al Jazeera.

Yemen used to have around 295 media publications, according to the country's National Information Center, with four official state-owned TV channels and 14 privately-owned TV channels, but within a matter of months, most were co-opted by the Houthis.

An unspecified number of journalists were arrested and are still languishing in Houthi prisons.

The Committee to Protect Journalists reported late last year: "If the Houthis were considered a governing authority, Yemen would have the fifth highest number of journalists in jail in the world."

The initiative has developed a strong following on Facebook and Twitter, with videos garnering thousands of views [Faisal Edroos/Al Jazeera]

'We interview everyone'

Saudi Arabia's intervention further worsened the media landscape with both sides investing vast sums of money in their propaganda operations.

In an attempt to control local and international narratives, the Houthis began detaining journalists without charge, while an army of pro-Saudi Twitter bots began pushing anti-Houthi propaganda and started stifling reports on social media, which documented the killings of civilians in air attacks.

As a result, the Yemeni public and its diaspora began receiving a distorted picture of the war, with both sides either focusing on the other side's atrocities or producing content glorifying their humanitarian work.

"Usually Yemenis say if you side with one party to the conflict, you have one enemy. But if you're neutral, you have two enemies," Baider said.

"Thankfully, the feedback we've received has been very positive. People are now aware of what's going on.

"[Yemenis] are being kept informed and updated and we're growing bigger and bigger on social media."

Members of the Yemen Peace Newsroom interview a delegate at the peace talks [Faisal Edroos/Al Jazeera]

*This piece was written by Faisal Edroos and I for Al Jazeera English, published yesterday 12 Dec. 2018.